Matchmaker, Matchmaker

By early May of 1992, I’d been actively seeking employment for several months.  I was less than two months from defending my dissertation, but prospects for employment in academia come fall were not promising. I’d sent out dozens of applications, and the results to date had been meager: in January, I’d had a few face-to-face chats at the national math meetings in Baltimore that ultimately led nowhere, while in February I’d bombed my only on-site interview, at a regional state university in Indiana. I was already contemplating remaining at Illinois—I thought I had a pretty good shot at getting assistantship support for one more year. Maybe I could make progress on extending results from my doctoral work, too.

At that relatively late moment in the hiring cycle, two glimmers of hope appeared. First, I snagged another interview, this time at a liberal arts college in the northern half of the Hoosier State. And I’d recently sent my materials off for an opening in Kentucky—a tenure-track position at Georgetown College, just a little north of my old stomping grounds in Lexington and only about an hour away from my parents. It was probably the last viable opening for 92-93 to hit the desk of my Director of Graduate Studies.

After final exams ended, I headed home to be with my folks for a few days, and as usual, I snuck in an overnight visit to Lexington to see James. On the way back to Florence, I made an impulsive decision to swing by Georgetown’s campus, just to remind myself of its layout (I’d been there at least a couple of times during college to see my sister’s basketball team face GC) and figure out where the math department was located.

The three-story George Matt Asher Jr. Science Center sits at the right base of the circle that leads up to Giddings Hall, the administration building. It didn’t take long to determine the Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science (MPC) Department resided on the middle floor of Asher. Since graduation had already taken place, the floor was very quiet, except for one man doing some year-end clean-up in a physics lab. After introducing myself, I explained my reason for being there. He showed me around a little, not put out in the least by the interruption of his work. He then offered to take me to Giddings to meet the Academic Dean; I wasn’t sure how to say no. After a brief conversation with said Dean, I took my leave of campus, thanking Dr. Bart Dickinson, the quietly enthusiastic physicist, for his time, and wondering if I’d see him again.

Well, yeah. The interview in Indiana went sorta okay at best—the chair there told me they might offer me a one-year visiting position. Not very long after, though, Georgetown called, asking for an interview on the first of June. I still hadn’t figured out how to give a good interview, but the people in the department were uniformly nice, and somehow I soon found myself in possession of a tenure-track job offer. Bart became my first department chair. 

I lived in an apartment in Lexington for my first three semesters at GC, but in December of 1993, I took the plunge into home ownership, a small three-bedroom new build about three miles north of campus. I learned early on that Bart and I shared a denominational background, of which he reminded me occasionally with invitations to attend First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I was slowly working myself back into church-going after several years away, and as 1994 progressed, I found myself in the pews of FCC on Sunday mornings more and more often. Bart sang tenor in the choir, and began checking to see if I would be interested in joining. I’d never been a member of a choral group, but over the years I had learned enough to do decently well with the bass part of many a hymn.

It was on a warmer-than-average Wednesday evening in January 1995, not long after the start of the spring semester, that I decided to give choir practice a try. Bart might have been the only person there I knew, but everyone was super welcoming (several of the folks I met that night are still around and will be singing alongside me tomorrow morning). I was placed in between two of the other three basses on the back row. As rehearsal progressed, I couldn’t help but notice a woman in the row in front of me occasionally stealing glances my way. Of course, I noticed her, too: an attractive redhead, one of a very few people in the room around my age (At 30, I was definitely on the younger side).

I did know her name, and who she was. I’d recently become newsletter editor of our state math organization. One of my duties the previous fall had been to gather news from campuses across Kentucky. Martha Lutz was my contact on the math faculty at nearby Midway College, and she’d written back with an item or two for me to include in the fall issue. Around the same time, she served as Worship Leader one Sunday and had her name in the bulletin; I put two and two together, so to speak. 

Twenty-five years ago tonight, when rehearsal ended, Martha and I said our first hellos to one another. (Okay, possibly not quite the first.) We wandered out to the parking lot and talked for a decent while beside our cars. The interaction felt comfortable, natural; it was immediately clear how kind, how smart she was, and that she was someone I’d be happy to get to know better. I didn’t sing with the choir on Sunday, but returned for practice the next Wednesday and began joining in on Sundays thereafter. On the third Saturday after meeting, we had our first date. In less than eighteen months, Martha and I were married in that church.

Bart’s plan had worked brilliantly.

It took me a good while to realize we’d been set up. Martha had been a member of the FCC choir for a few years by the time of our meeting. She did eventually mention that Bart had been telling her about “this nice young, new mathematician” in his department, but of course he hadn’t let on to either of us his ulterior motives in trying to lure me to practice. While Martha and I would have eventually crossed paths without the nudge from Bart, you never know if the outcome would have been the same. Over the last few years, Bart’s children have told us it was his only effort at matchmaking, and also among his proudest achievements.

Over the years Bart and I had various points of connection. For a while in the latter part of the 90s, he and I co-taught a Sunday School class for college students at FCC. It rarely attracted more than three or so people, but it allowed me to see up close Bart’s humble yet deep faith.  When there was an office crunch on our floor of the science building in my second year on the job, Bart volunteered to move into a storage room adjacent to the main physics lab, letting me have the office he’d used since the late 60s. With the exception of the year I spent on sabbatical in New York, he and I are still the only ones to have occupied 120 Asher Science Center.

A few weeks into the Fall 2003 semester, it became apparent that Bart was suffering significant short-term memory problems, significant enough to warrant an immediate retirement. As it happened, Bart’s son Jonathan (who had been a freshman at GC my first year there) was wrapping up a PhD in chemical physics in Virginia; he wound up being the search committee’s choice to fill the hole beginning the following fall.

For the next few years, I generally saw Bart only at church. In our conversations, he was as friendly as ever, but I can’t say with certainty that he regularly knew who I was. After a while, it became too difficult for him to continue with the choir. Unfortunately, his condition kept worsening, to the point that he eventually became homebound.

It was only after Bart’s memory issues arose that it dawned on me that I’d never offered him any kind of thanks for the pivotal role he played in my good fortune. I subsequently compounded my error by deciding it was too late to try to make amends—I’ve come to see that even if he wouldn’t have remembered my words, there was no reason not to tell him, either verbally or in writing. It’s in the top tier of my life’s regrets.

In the fall of 2013 I taught an 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One Thursday in early November, I was gathering my thoughts before class when Jonathan came in the room with the news that his father had passed away early that morning. I understood this was a mercy for Bart, a thoroughly fine and decent person who’d been dealt a cruel fate over his final decade. Nonetheless, I broke down immediately. I hurt for Jonathan, his mother, and his siblings, but I imagine I was also selfishly grieving for myself, over the letter never sent, the words never spoken.

The funeral was the following Sunday afternoon, in the church sanctuary. The family asked the choir to sing one of Bart’s favorite anthems, “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” (truth be told, it’s a favorite of mine, too). It wasn’t necessarily easy, but we did it, and I believe fairly well.

There’s so much in our lives, both good and bad, that comes completely undeserved. The love of one’s life. Dementia. Close friendships. Cancer. On those occasions when it’s something on the positive side of the ledger, perhaps we should celebrate, appreciate, and maybe even find a way to reciprocate. I’m very fortunate to have been on the receiving end of kindnesses so frequently. I could stand to act like I recognize this more often.

I guess there’s no time like the present to begin, so today I’ll celebrate a quarter-century with Martha in my life, and acknowledge my debt to Bart Dickinson, for thinking to look out for me.

Thank you for helping make my life so much richer, Bart.

Addendum: Speaking of kindnesses, I’m grateful to Jim Bartlett, who has a post today describing what was happening in the world on January 18, 1995, at his blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/27/86: Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight”

It’s true that I wasn’t nearly the fan of Eddie Money’s music that I was of the Cars. Never owned one of his albums, never bought any Money singles. I didn’t dislike him–he just didn’t consistently break through for me. Nonetheless, I was sorry to learn late last month that he was dealing with advanced esophageal cancer; his death a week ago Saturday wasn’t especially surprising news.

So, yes, my knowledge and appreciation of his craft is fairly limited. But when you say “Eddie Money,” I think of hearing “Gimme Some Water” at an all-day track meet in the spring of 78; of seeing vids for “Shakin'” and “The Big Crash” on MTV in the student center at Transy; of first catching “I Wanna Go Back” on the radio while visiting James in his apartment over the Christmas break after we graduated. He was there, hanging on the periphery–occasionally more central–for about a decade. I’m grateful for the memories, Mr. Mahoney.

“Baby Hold On” and “Two Tickets To Paradise” are both quality songs. I liked “Think I’m in Love” quite a bit in the summer of 82–you’ll see it in my personal Top 10 for 8/21/82 in the recent Charts post (edit: Whoops! It didn’t make the Top 10 until September, eventually getting to #5). Then there’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” which is debuting at #38 here and wound up being his biggest hit, reaching #4. On one hand, incorporating Ronnie Spector and riffing on “Be My Baby” was truly inspired; on the other, after a few dozen listens the inspiration began to acquire somewhat of a novelty feel (and there may have been too much of it, too). And I’ve always thought “I feel a hunger…it’s a hunger!” wasn’t, well, exactly the greatest rock line ever. Balancing it all out, though, I still give the song a thumbs up, maybe even one of his better tunes.

But why isn’t the official video available on YouTube? That I’d love to see again.

Turns Me Upside Down

There’s no point in me attempting to recap the life and times of Ric Ocasek and the Cars–others have much more knowledge and insight, and whatever I’d say would be redundant besides. Instead, as is my wont, you get snippets of personal experience and random thoughts, plus a list.

–The Cars’ heyday–which I consider to run through their mid-80s Greatest Hits–lined up precisely with my HS and college years, perhaps the sweet spot in the formation and shaping of my musical tastes. I was really big on virtually all the singles from their first five albums (“Touch and Go” was just okay) but didn’t buy any of their LPS until I started going after 12″ vinyl in earnest in 84. Heartbeat City was the only one I ever purchased new, including CDs.

–From day one of my exposure to them, Ocasek was always (and rightly so) presented as the band’s leader. That misled me into thinking for a good while that he was their only vocalist. Other folks have been making the observation that Benjamin Orr’s voice did bear a strong resemblance to Ocasek’s, with which I very much agree. Alas, this may have had the unfortunate side effect of me further minimizing Orr’s contributions initially. So I’ll take a moment to raise up some of those songs from the first three albums that the gone-far-too-early Orr made memorable: “Just What I Needed” and the epic final trio of tunes on The Cars (am I the only one who thinks “All Mixed Up” makes the list of Top 10 Cars Songs?); both singles from Candy-O; and my favorite from Panorama, “Don’t Tell Me No.” I guess the way I figure out who was on vocals now is, if I’m not certain that it’s Ocasek, it has to be Orr.

–Here’s what I’m claiming today are my five fave Cars tunes featuring Ocasek on lead vocals:

#5: “Hello Again”
It was well into the summer of 84 before I bought Heartbeat City. I was blown away by its lead-off track the first time I put needle to record; their signature jerkiness and quirkiness are both dialed up to 10. The Warhol vid doesn’t do all that much for me, but I was glad nonetheless  “Hello Again” became a single.

 

#4: “My Best Friend’s Girl”
Were we just not fully ready for music like this in 78? Peaks of just #27, #35, and #41 for “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll”? Of those three, this is the one with the best (and most classic) song structure and musicianship.

 

#3: “Magic”
One of a very few 45s I bought after hearing the song just once. Not quite sure how to take Ric portrayed as a Jesus figure–I noted on Twitter the other night that the walking-on-water payoff takes too long to arrive (it’s pretty easy to guess it’s coming, too, though I get why they try to wait until the first chorus for the big reveal). On the other hand, bonus points get awarded for the sounds following the line “How far can you take it?” that make me think of “Spirit in the Sky.”

 

For the top two, just scenes from one time I heard them.

#2: “Since You’re Gone”
April 82. I’ve jumped in our 81 Chevy Citation to drive to school on a promising spring morning and cranked the engine. On comes WLAP-FM, which I’ve only recently started tuning in regularly. I’m not even out of the driveway when that distinctive intro fires up.

 

#1: “Dangerous Type”
Mid-July 81. A bunch of us from my church youth group are in Louisville, having just completed the second leg of a three-day, 200+-mile biking excursion around the Erlanger-Lexington-Louisville triangle. Our youth director’s grandmother lives in town and we’re taking her car to Chi-Chi’s for a well-earned dinner to be topped off with fried ice cream. The radio’s quickly switched over WQMF, the local AOR station. We’re on the Watterson, a beltway around the southern edge of the city. Amidst tracks from REO Speedwagon and the Sherbs, on it comes.

 

–Prior to this, there hadn’t been all that much mention of the Cars or Ocasek here at the blog–“Dangerous Type” was on the mix tape series that kicked things off, “Something To Grab For” made my first Songs Casey Never Played post, a couple of their singles received brief mention other times. This greatly understates the degree to which I appreciated them back in the day. I have strong and fond memories other than those sketched out here, particularly for “Good Times Roll” and “Let’s Go,” but I’ve gone on long enough as it is. They were easily among my five favorite bands for quite a while, and more than deserved their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.

The National Album Countdown

Forty-three years ago today, I wrote down my first American Top 40 chart. The show was broadcast from 6-9pm on Sunday evenings on WSAI out of Cincinnati, 1360 on your AM dial. It became close to ritual, at least for the next three months, to set aside that block of time with a sheet of notebook paper and a radio of some sort close by. Committing the songs to paper meant wanting to listen through to the end of the show (though the Cincinnati Enquirer usually published the top ten of several Billboard charts in its Sunday edition).  I didn’t necessarily switch the radio off immediately after Casey implored me to “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars,” and soon I realized that WSAI followed AT40 with another three-hour syndicated show, the National Album Countdown. It reported on the top 30 albums of the week (though I don’t recall the data source—it wasn’t Billboard). The show generally featured album cuts, not singles.

I listened to the NAC with decent regularity through July and August of 76, taking notes in a spiral memo notebook, at least until I got too tired (I was twelve, and apparently midnight was too late to stay up, even in the summer). Naturally, I still have the notebook. Looks like I have parts of four countdowns from that summer.

First, 7/11 and 7/18:

NAC1

NAC3

Note how I botched the names of both the Scaggs and Beck LPs (those Beck cuts sure didn’t sound live!). I have more written down for these July shows on the backs of the pages (through #7 for 7/11 and #12 for 7/18), but you get the idea.

Next, 8/8 and an undated show—very likely 8/15:

NAC5

NAC6

This is all I have for both of these shows.

WSAI took AT40 off the air after the 9/4/76 show. An outcry from listeners led them to bring it back in mid-October, albeit at 8pm. No idea what happened with the National Album Countdown during or after, except that for some odd reason there is one complete NAC list, from 10/17:

NAC7

Earlier album title issues fixed!

I don’t know that I ever heard another NAC after this, and I didn’t think much about the show over the next three-plus decades. But I didn’t completely forget, either. In early 2014, I tried to harness the power of the Internet to see what I could find out about it. There was surprisingly little; the show seems to have gone fully down the memory hole. The most, and best, information I discovered came from an 2010 article on Jim Bartlett’s blog. Probably the biggest thing I (re-)learned was the name of the show’s host: Humble Harve Miller—for years and years, I’d mistakenly thought it had been Robert W. Morgan.

(I briefly related last July how that Internet search turned out to be perhaps the first step toward this blog’s creation.)

The reason for telling all this now? Humble Harve passed away on Monday; jb has written a very good summary of Miller’s, er, unusual life arc, which you can find here.

Digging around YouTube last night led me to discover audio (voice-overs only) of the 7/13/74 American Top 40 show that Miller guest-hosted. Hearing his deep, sonorous voice immediately transported me through time and space, back to my tiny bedroom in Walton. The window is open, a box fan blowing on me. I’m cupping a transistor radio to my ear with a little blue 33-cent spiral notebook at my side, lying in the lower bunk of my stacked beds, scribbling stuff down until I conk out.

 

On Saturday, there’ll be another moment from my summer of 76.

Nearing the Finish Line

A year ago in February we started working with an educational consultant to help us navigate the college search process. Ben was more than halfway through his junior year, and while we had some ideas and suggestions for places he might investigate, Martha and I thought we should get some outside assistance to reduce the chance of overlooking an obvious good fit for Ben. Rose came highly recommended to us by a woman in our church whose son was a year ahead of Ben.

I was very impressed after our initial consultation. Rose had established contact with schools all over the country over her years in the business and had a solid feel for the overall vibe of seemingly all of them. She asked insightful questions of Ben in that first meeting and by its end identified a couple dozen colleges and universities for him (well, us) to research. Within a week or so we had plans to tour some places in VA and NC over my spring break and a foray into OH at the end of March. A couple of other trips east came over the summer.

The visits and tours were probably more fun for the parents than the son—it was certainly a vastly more extensive enterprise than either of us had undertaken thirty-five-plus years before. Besides, as a college prof, I’m fairly interested in learning about other campuses.

By midsummer, we were holding our meetings with an associate of Rose’s. Nothing was said at first, but we intuited that Rose was ill.  When it came time to submit applications in the fall, Ben eliminated all but one of the places we had visited outside of KY, OH, and IN. I don’t think that meant our energies (and money) had been wasted—we had great times together, and knowing what didn’t excite him so much was useful information, too. Better to go to a few too many places, I say…

Ben is making his last overnight visit as I write this. He and Martha are in OH, up toward Cleveland. After they get back tomorrow, the final thinking and analyzing will begin. I think we’re down to three primary contenders, and I hope that Ben will make his choice within 10-14 days. While one has been the favorite for some time, I get the sense that he’s a little afraid of “not making the right decision,” but really, there are no bad options at this point. I’ll support his choice 100%.

Just down the street from Transy is a funeral home. I passed by it dozens of times while I was in college, walking between campus and downtown Lexington; many was the time back then when I saw folks entering and leaving it to pay respects to the recently departed. This afternoon was the first time I had gone inside. Rose passed away on Thursday, and I went to pay respects. I knew that she had been an active member of her communities over the years, but her accomplishments were impressive. (As an aside, I learned early on in our dealings that one of her daughters was a college classmate of mine).

Earlier this month, the associate had resigned from Rose’s business, and we’d subsequently set up an appointment with Rose for the second weekend of April. I’m sorry we won’t get to keep that meeting—I was looking forward to having Ben let her know of his final decision—but it is good that she is at peace. I’m glad to have met her and used her services—two of Ben’s three finalists are places she suggested to us.

Prior to Thursday, I had a different way to go with this piece, one that would hook into a prospective student event that took place at Transy around the time of this weekend’s 84 AT40 rebroadcast. I hope that’ll come in some form later in the week.

A Shining Path, A Clouded Mind

Elliott Smith was already gone for close to four years before I paid much mind to his music. Like any number of other ‘discoveries’ in the late 2000s, he came to my attention through my “Aimee Mann Radio” Pandora channel. First it was “Son of Sam,” then “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” and “Baby Britain.” Soon thereafter I picked up Figure 8, which includes the first two of those songs; it’s absolutely one of my favorite albums from this century.

It wasn’t that I was unaware of Smith prior to then. I’d seen Good Will Hunting, I’d caught his name mentioned on public radio, I even remember hearing about his death in real time. My impression was that I might like his stuff, but the period from around 2000 to 2007 was one of very little delving into the current music scene.

I visited Greg in early 2010 while attending a math conference in DC. After mentioning how hooked I’d become on Figure 8, he trotted out the excellent “Waltz #2” from XO for me. (One thing I dig about Smith is his frequent use of 3/4 and 6/8 time—also check out “Stupidity Tries” or “Easy Way Out” on Figure 8.)

I seem to prefer Smith’s later, fuller, more Beatlesque material, which I don’t doubt puts me at odds with many Elliott-philes. In addition to the songs I’ve already mentioned, big faves from Figure 8 include “Junk Bond Trader,” “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach),” and “Can’t Make a Sound.”

This Sunday will mark the 15th anniversary of Smith’s suicide, at the far-too-early age of 34. I wrote a short note about him on Facebook at this time two years ago, which included this sentence: “He was both an amazing talent and one more cautionary tale about the perils of addiction and depression.” I don’t wish to boil down his life to a single line—I can’t know his trials and his demons, though, so I don’t want to say too much more. I’m just very sorry he (along with so many others) wasn’t able to hold it together, to make things work.

 

 

 

 

Magic Numbers

Edited to add: I intentionally didn’t look at any music blogs to see if or what they wrote about Bob Dorough before I did my thing here; that may have been an error. If I’d read Len O’Kelly’s take (he also links to “Lolly”), I might not have bothered with this.  Go to his site–his post is great.

Amy and I spent many a Saturday morning in the mid 70s watching cartoons. Favorites included Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and Looney Tunes, with helpings of shows like Hong Kong Phooey and The Pink Panther thrown in. When we had it on ABC, I usually enjoyed the three-minute Schoolhouse Rock pieces that played between shows. Those came back to mind yesterday when I learned of Monday’s passing of Bob Dorough, who wrote many of the songs featured in Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock, and America Rock segments. He also sang most of his compositions, so his is definitely a voice of my childhood!

The Multiplication Rock shorts came out in early 73, Grammar Rock six-to-twelve months later, and America Rock in 75-76. (I’d already gotten too old by the time Science Rock was introduced a couple years beyond that). I mostly remember the Grammar ones. “Interjections,” which Dorough didn’t write, is my favorite. Among those he did pen, I most enjoy “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” “Three Is a Magic Number” (more meaningful to me now since we have just one child), and the haunting metaphysics—“that’s a circle that turns ‘round upon itself”—of “Figure Eight” (sung by the inimitable Blossom Dearie).

I got the Schoolhouse Rock DVD when Ben was fairly young, but these songs indubitably mean much more to me than to him.

Thanks to you, Mr. Dorough, for all the fun, educational diversions you created, and rest in peace.